SHARON R. HAMMER, Plaintiff-Appellant,
CITY OF SUN VALLEY; NILS RIBI; and DeWAYNE BRISCOE, Defendants-Respondents.
Opinion No. 149
from the District Court of the Fifth Judicial District of the
State of Idaho, in and for Blaine County. Hon. Jonathan P.
Brody, District Judge.
judgment of the district court is affirmed.
Johnson, Angstman Johnson, Boise, argued for appellant.
Kirtlan Naylor, Naylor and Hales, P.C., Boise, argued for
an appeal out of Blaine County from a judgment dismissing the
Plaintiff's lawsuit seeking to recover under the Idaho
Protection of Public Employees Act. The district court ruled
that the Plaintiff had waived her claim against the City of
Sun Valley pursuant to a release she had signed and that the
Act did not provide a cause of action against City officials.
We affirm the district court.
1, 2008, Sharon R. Hammer ("Plaintiff") began
working as the City Administrator for the City of Sun Valley
("City") pursuant to a written employment agreement
("Employment Agreement"). On November 8, 2011,
DeWayne Briscoe defeated the incumbent mayor, Wayne Willich,
in the mayoral election. On November 10, 2011, the City's
city council conducted a special executive session to discuss
allegations of improper use of public funds and equipment by
the Plaintiff. The following day, her husband, an attorney,
sent a letter to Mayor Willich threatening litigation. On
November 18, 2011, the City placed the Plaintiff on paid
administrative leave, and three days later her husband filed
a lawsuit on her behalf against the City and members of city
government. Following an investigation, Plaintiff resumed her
duties on December 27, 2011, and no disciplinary action was
January 3, 2012, Mr. Briscoe was sworn in as the mayor. The
next day, he placed the Plaintiff on paid administrative
leave and notified her of another investigation. On January
12, 2012, the Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed her pending
lawsuit against the City and members of city government. On
January 19, 2012, the Plaintiff was terminated from
employment based upon the unanimous vote of the Mayor and
Employment Agreement provided that the Mayor could terminate
the Plaintiff's employment without cause after consulting
with each member of the city council. It further provided
that if the termination was without cause, the Plaintiff was
entitled to severance pay, and that if she was terminated for
cause, she was not entitled to severance pay. Finally, it
provided that the severance pay would be the Plaintiff's
"sole exclusive remedy for any and all claims for
damages of any kind arising from a termination without cause,
" that she "waives her right to bring a claim of
any kind for damages against Employer [the City] arising from
a termination without cause, " and that "receipt of
the severance payment is subject to execution of a release of
all claims against the City of Sun Valley." On January
23, 2012, Plaintiff signed a "Supplemental Release
Pursuant to City Administrator Employment Agreement"
(Supplemental Release), which was drafted by her husband and
which released claims against the City upon receipt of the
severance payment. The City paid the Plaintiff the severance
payment provided for in the Employment Agreement.
29, 2012, the Plaintiff filed this action against the City
and ten individuals in their official capacities as city
officials or employees. On June 29, 2012, she filed an
amended complaint naming as defendants the City; Mr. Briscoe,
the current mayor; and Nils Ribi, a current member of the
city council. The district court dismissed this case as to
all Defendants, and the Plaintiff timely appealed.
the District Court Err in Granting the City's Motion for
reviewing on appeal the granting of a motion for summary
judgment, we apply the same standard used by the trial court
in ruling on the motion. Infanger v. City of Salmon,
137 Idaho 45, 46-47, 44 P.3d 1100, 1101-02 (2002). We
construe all disputed facts, and draw all reasonable
inferences from the record, in favor of the non-moving party.
Id. at 47, 44 P.3d at 1102. Summary judgment is
appropriate only if the evidence in the record and any
admissions show that there is no genuine issue of any
material fact regarding the issues raised in the pleadings
and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter
of law. Id. If the evidence reveals no disputed
issues of material fact, then only a question of law remains,
over which this Court exercises free review. Id.
amended complaint, the Plaintiff asserted a single cause of
action pursuant to the Idaho Protection of Public Employees
Act ("IPPEA"), Idaho Code sections 6-2101, et
seq., for retaliatory discharge. The City moved for
summary judgment on the ground that her action against the
City was barred by the Supplemental Release. That document
Upon payment of the severance payment required pursuant to
Section 3.A. of the City Administrator Employment Agreement
dated June 1, 2008, I release the City Of Sun Valley for any
claims defined in Section 3.A. of the City Administrator
Employment Agreement as were intended when the City
Administrator Employment Agreement was entered into on June
Supplemental Agreement stated that the Plaintiff released
"any claims defined in Section
the City Administrator Employment Agreement."
3.A. of the Employment Agreement stated:
SECTION 3. TERMINATION AND SEVERANCE PAY
A. Employer, acting through the Mayor, may terminate
Employee's employment, without cause, for any reason or
no reason. Any such decision to terminate shall occur only
after the Mayor consults with each member of the City
Council. Upon such termination, Employer shall pay Employee,
as severance pay, a lump sum cash payment equal to six (6)
months, base salary described in Section 5, Subsection A.
The severance payment herein is intended to be Employee's
sole exclusive remedy for any and all claims for damages of
any kind arising from a termination without cause and such
severance payment is hereby agreed to be reasonable, fair and
equitable by both parties to this Agreement. Accordingly,
Employee waives her right to bring a claim of any kind for
damages against Employer arising from a termination without
cause. Consequently, receipt of the severance payment is
subject to execution of a release of all claims against the
City of Sun Valley. A termination without cause shall not
entitle Employee to an informal review under any section of
the City of Sun Valley Personnel manual ("Personnel
undisputed that the Plaintiff received the severance payment
in the amount required. In addition, Section 3.B. of the
Employment Agreement provides, "In the event Employee is
terminated for 'cause', then Employer shall not be
obligated to make any severance payment to Employee."
Plaintiff contends that the severance payment she received
was for past services and, therefore, there was no
consideration for the release of any claims. "Whether a
contract is ambiguous is a question of law over which we
exercise free review." Howard v. Perry, 141
Idaho 139, 142, 106 P.3d 465, 468 (2005). The Plaintiff
states on appeal, "The Supplemental Release is clear on
its face, and is not ambiguous." We agree. "If the
contract is clear and unambiguous, the determination of the
contract's meaning and legal effect are questions of law,
and the meaning of the contract and intent of the parties
must be determined from the plain meaning of the
contract's own words." City of Idaho Falls v.
Home Indem. Co., 126 Idaho 604, 607, 888 P.2d 383, 386
(1995). (Citation omitted).
district court correctly stated:
The release [Supplemental Agreement] operates to
"release the City of Sun Valley for any claims defined
in Section 3.A. of the City Administrator Employment
Agreement." When looking to Section 3.A. of
plaintiff's employment agreement, it unambiguously
provides that "severance payment herein is intended to
be Employee's sole exclusive remedy for any and all
claims for damages of any kind arising from a
termination without cause." It also goes on to say that
"[c]onsequently, receipt of the severance payment is
subject to a release of all claims against the City
of Sun Valley."
of the term "severance payment" does not
necessarily mean that it is compensation for past services.
In Parker v. Underwriters Labs., Inc., 140 Idaho
517, 96 P.3d 618 (2004), an employee was entitled to receive
"enhanced severance benefits" upon termination if
she signed a release which released her employer "from
any and all claims of any kind relating to or arising out of
[her] employment or termination of that employment."
Id. at 521, 96 P.3d at 622. This Court held that the
"enhanced severance benefits" received by the
employee did not constitute "severance pay" in the
sense of " '[a] sum of money usually based on
length of employment for which an employee is eligible upon
termination.' " Id. at 520, 522, 96
P.3d at 621, 623. Rather, her "consideration for the
agreement was not services but the release of any claim that
she might have against [her employer] relating to her
employment or termination." Id. at 522, ...